The nation of Myanmar, formerly Burma, is made up of eight ethnic groups speaking 135 different dialects. The Mon, making up just two percent of Myanmar’s estimated 55 million people, are one of the smallest groups and also one of the oldest. In some histories, the Mon are known as the first people to bring Theravada Buddhism to Indochina. More recently, they’ve brought that same tradition to Akron, Ohio.

“Akron is the best place for refugees. There are more job opportunities here,” said Khin Maug Soe, a Mon man who works as an employment case manager at the International Institute of Akron (IIA), a refugee placement and settlement program. According to Soe, about 80 percent of the Mon living in Akron have stable jobs and have bought houses. “They plan to stay here,” he said.

In recent decades, Myanmar has been ruled by an oppressive military junta. While the situation has stabilized somewhat after recent political reforms, interethnic conflict persists, most notably in the Rakhine state, where genocidal violence against Rohingya Muslims has forced hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh. The Mon people have also long faced persecution, and their language is in decline. Some of them have been seeking a better life in the United States, and many say they have found it in Akron.

The Mon people in Akron

“Coming as a foreigner is hard when you’re not together with people who share your language and culture,” said Mon Kyaw, 26. Kyaw grew up attending the Mon Buddhist Temple of Akron, where he found the community that he needed to flourish. Now he works as a sushi chef in Cleveland but still drives the 45-odd minutes back to the temple whenever he can to attend services or lend his support with cleaning and maintenance work or by serving as a translator. “For us as foreigners, as Mon people, as refugees from Burma, our religion is Buddha. We listen to the monks and what the Buddha have to say. They show us the way,” he said.

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Monks from the Mon Buddhist Temple of Akron collect donations from their sangha after offering a blessing for Kathina on Oct. 20, 2019.

Kyaw was speaking outside the temple on Akron’s Chittenden Street on October 19. It was the night before Kathina, an ancient tradition that follows Vassa, a three-month-long retreat during the rainy season. When the monks emerge from their temples at the end of the retreat, they offer new blessings to their community, who in turn bring the monks cloth for new robes and other needed donations. (The custom is known as “the offering of robes.”) Sangha members gathered at the temple to clean up, raise a banner announcing the holiday, and prepare food for the temple’s eight monks and their community. 

The next day, the temple was packed with dozens of Mon families carrying cloth for their monks’ new robes, flowers, and other gifts. Women and girls wore bright hand-sewn outfits as they filled a table with a feast’s worth of homemade Burmese cuisine. The temple’s monks came out and delivered a blessing to their community before sitting down to eat, followed by a general community feast.

“Temples like these have a lot to offer,” said Htaw Mon, 25, who also left Myanmar for the US  as a youth and is now studying to be a pharmacist. “It’s a way for our community to get together every week to, at the very least, grab a hold onto our culture.”

Soon, the members of this temple, estimated at around 300,  will have a little bit more room to celebrate. They are renovating a former landscaper’s shop on a five-acre plot two miles away on Palmetto Avenue, a tree-lined residential oasis in an otherwise industrial area.  They say it will be the largest Mon temple in the US. Once overgrown and strewn with rubble, the land was cleared by community volunteers. It is now a place of serenity, with elm trees, kutis (housing) for the monks, brightly painted tires repurposed as planters, brick walls that a monk helped lay by hand, and a fig tree—of the same species as the famed Bodhi tree.

A pagoda in Akron reflecting the traditional Burmese design of the famed Shwedagon Pagoda. It was completed in August 2018 by Htanjanu Ramonnya Temple.

“For the last 15 or so years, the families have come, they’ve saved their money, they’ve worked hard [for] minimum wage, and now they buy this. This is what they’ve wanted for so long, their own temple and some space away from the city [center],” said John Walter, a native Akronite who joined the temple. “We’re delighted to have them; I’m so glad I have real Buddhist monks here in my town.”

New energy for a stagnating city

As the Mon community put down roots in Akron—which now hosts the second-largest Mon population in the US after Fort Wayne, Indiana—they have found economic stability. Myanmar is one of the poorest nations in Asia with a 26 percent poverty rate, but in Akron, which has declined from its days as the center of domestic rubber manufacturing, many Mon refugees have found work at local plants; others have found success as business owners.

“I love it here,” said Siri Paing, 36, who came to the US in 2013 and now owns a small Asian grocery store with her family, selling everything from rice and imported tea to fresh kaffir lime leaves clipped off of a four-year-old tree at the front of the shop. “We love our temple. We have a strong community here…. My kids can learn our language. I like to tell the people—Akron is good for starting a life here.”

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Siri Paing, 36, who owns a small Asian grocery store in Akron, prepares food for Kathina celebrations at the Mon Buddhist Temple of Akron.

Akron has many refugees and immigrants, most of whom live in the North Hill and Firestone Park neighborhoods, and the city says they are helping to keep its economy strong.

“We want people here to diversify our communities,” said Annie McFadden, deputy chief of staff at Akron’s Mayor’s Office. “They infuse new tax dollars, new business, a new diversity of cultures and food into the city, and make it a more vibrant, diverse community.”

Like many other post-industrial American cities, Akron has seen its population shrink—from around 300,000 in the sixties to just below 200,000 today. Since 2002, at least 2,173 refugees have resettled in Akron—with 1,210 of them from Myanmar, according to an Omaha World-Herald report (although not all of these people stayed there permanently).

But under the Trump administration, limits on refugees have been repeatedly slashed—from 85,000 in 2016 to what will be a record low of 18,000 in 2020 under a policy change announced in September. These cuts have led to the elimination of one refugee resettlement agency in Akron.

 “It’s been a rollercoaster in the last year,” said Madhu Sharma, IIA’s executive director, who noted that organizations like hers are budgeted according to the number of new refugees. The reduction in resources has made it more difficult to serve the existing refugee communities.

“There’s a lot of chaos,” Sharma said. But, she adds, “we’ve been fortunate.” Akron has been a very successful settlement site in the past, and despite a dip in the numbers, Sharma and her colleagues remain “stalwart.” “I really hope that we will survive these years in which refugee resettlement is at a record low,” she told Tricycle.

In 2017, the governments of Akron and surrounding Summit County declared themselves “welcoming” to immigrants, and released a report noting that a 30 percent increase in foreign-born residents from 2007 to 2013 had significantly offset the area’s population loss.

Two temples

The Mon community in Akron is large enough to support two temples. The newer one, Htanjanu Ramonnya Temple (roughly translated as the “Place of Bliss Mon Buddhist Temple”) is on Sherman Street and serves an estimated 200 Mon. In August 2018, the community completed construction on a traditional Burmese pagoda on temple grounds. The pagoda is the first of its kind in Ohio, reflecting the traditional Burmese design of the famed Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (formerly Rangoon).

Many Mon community members believe that it was a Mon monk who, in 1056, converted King Anawrahta to Theravada Buddhism. He made it the state religion, spreading Buddhism across Myanmar and later to all of Indochina. While some historians debate the veracity of this story, it is a point of pride for a people who have long suffered persecution.

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Members of Htanjanu Ramonnya Temple, the newer Mon Buddhist temple in Akron, with their monk, Ven. Kesaramoli (rear center).

“The children need to understand, need to know where their family came from,” said Raymond Roteain, 49, a refugee who came to the US in 2001 and is now a member and volunteer at the Mon Buddhist Monastery. “One day the Burmese soldiers came to attack our village and they destroyed everything. And they asked my parents, my father in Burmese, ‘Are you guys against the government?’ My father, he’s Mon, he doesn’t speak Burmese. So he doesn’t answer because he doesn’t know. And they beat him.”

One of the monks at Mon Buddhist Monastery, Ven. Soma, 53, recalled being taken out of school in second grade and forced to work in the rice fields. He was eventually able to get back to his religious studies, and then to Akron in 2010, after being invited to join the monastery.

“When people had to work in the communities, the army was watching. If they don’t like how you act, maybe they come and arrest you,” he recalled.

But as he gazed out at the grounds of the future temple on Palmetto Avenue, Soma was optimistic about his future.

“It’s nice,” he said. “This is similar to when we stay in the temple in Monland, because we like the quiet, a little far from the village. When we do meditation, no one disturbs us.”

Further reading: If you’re interested in learning more about Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, read journalist and former monk Matthew Gindin’s article “The Rohingya Are Not the Only Ones.” For our most recent coverage of the Rohingya crisis, check out our Buddha Buzz Weekly columns, posted every Saturday.